That’s not a cappuccino

6:30 Start 7:00 REM

8:00 Wilco

9:00 Breakfast

10:00 Belle and Sebastian

11:00 Floating Points

12:00 Laura Marling

13:00 Unknown Mortal Orchestra

14:00 Wolf Alice

Early start today for a long drive to Antigua. The alarm goes off at 5:00, we’re departing at 6:00. To add to our enjoyment there is no electricity and very little water – hot or cold – so we wash minimally, pack and dress in the dark.

We manage to get everything together and we’re in reception at 5:50, just in time for a quick coffee before the water taxi takes us to the bus.

We’re on the road by 6:30, if we’re lucky we’ll be in Antigua by 2:00pm – it all depends on the roadworks and the traffic. The first few hours are uneventful, we stop for a basic but tasty breakfast of eggs, beans and cheese. As we get into the hills the scenery gets more interesting, deep green valleys below us, the hilltops in the clouds.

Things slow down as we approach Guatemala City, we aren’t stopping here, from what we see of it this isnt a bad thing. It’s a big and sprawling city of about 5m people with only a few high rise buildings downtown. We cross high over a valley, single story houses cascade down the sides, looking very much like Rio’s favelas.

We’re quite lucky with the traffic and arrive at our hotel soon after 2pm. Antigua is immediately attractive, cobbled streets, low colourful buildings.

Antigua was the third Conquistador capital of Guatemala, it served as the seat of Government from 1543 until a number of major earthquakes in the 18th Century led to the creation of a new Capital – now Guatemala City. At this time the Spanish state of Guatemala included almost all of Central America and the south of present day Mexico. The city is surrounded by volcanos, one of which is still active.

We walk the streets randomly for an hour, it’s attractive but very busy. It’s only a short drive from the capital and many people are still on holiday after Christmas. Through a gateway there are some floats for an Easter parade, including some fairly gruesome flailing and crucifixion scenes. We stop for a drink, I order a cappucino and watch in dismay as the barista adds instant coffee and powdered milk to a cup, pours in hot water then adds cream from a can on top. I tell him it’s not a cappuccino, i.e. espresso, hot milk. He insists it is – I pay the 80p and leave it on the counter. Down the street there’s a much better cafe, no problems with the macchiato there.

Walk further and come across a beautiful ruined church, damaged by the 17th Century earthquakes, I would love to get my tripod inside but unfortunately it’s locked because its unsafe.

Return to the hotel for a shower before dinner.

It’s Christmas Day, it must be Guatemala

We’re leaving for Guatemala this morning, only two places are open so we have breakfast in one and coffee in another. Breakfast at a street stall is a very tasty burrito of cheese and beans, Florence has extra eggs with hers. Coffee is dark and strong, we chat to a local while we drink it, he teaches us a few words of Mayan – unfortunately his vocabulary doesn’t extend to Happy Christmas, we give him a task to learn it later in the day when he’s having lunch with his family.

We’re on our way by 9:00, it’s a short drive to the border and a very uneventful crossing. We have to pay a small fee to leave Belize and a small fee to enter Guatemala.

It’s an hour drive to our lunch stop, the land is very green with cultivation, it’s low-lying with a lot of water around.

Lunch is functional, nice salad and fruit juice, not so good cheese sandwiches. This isn’t our best Christmas lunch.

Phone our respective families, it’s good to talk to them all after nearly a month away, hard not to mention the sunshine, blue sky and temperature when they’re enjoying grey skies and rain – ‘but at least it’s mild’.

After lunch we’re on our way to Tikal, one of the largest Mayan sites in the region.
Tikal was at its peak between 200AD and 850AD although it started much earlier than this, probably from Mayans migrating from highland areas in the North when crops failed there for a number of years.

We start the visit with a walk through the jungle, we come across some vehicles left behind by an archaeological survey in the early 1970s. These are being slowly claimed by the jungle, rusting and adopting the green of the jungle.

Other sites we’ve visited had the feel of a town, Tikal is much larger, the major structures are further apart and although only 10% is excavated so far there are many more large plazas and buildings.

We climb the tallest temple – the archaeologists call it Temple IV – it’s about 230 feet high, even then the top only just reaches above the jungle canopy. A few other structures poke through the trees but it’s mainly a sea of green jungle as far as we can see. It’s the ideal place for our Christmas postcard image.

Next is my favourite part of the site, El Mundo Perdido – The Lost World. This is a group of smaller buildings which have been partially uncovered but mainly left to the jungle, there are trees and ferns of all shapes and sizes around them and the sun only breaks through in small patches highlighting parts of the stone.

We pass more temples and plazas until we reach the main square. This has the iconic Temple of the Grand Jaguar at one end, the other sides are made up of more temples and other structures – generally noble houses or administrative. From the top of one of them we watch the sun set into the jungle.

We only had two and a half hours to explore, we could have spent days – maybe next time.

We’re camping just outside the site tonight, not sure why as there is a hotel nearby. We go to the hotel restaurant for a Christmas Margarita and a tasty salad. And we drink close to a litre of water each.

Two Panty Rippers Please

Yesterday was about being under the waves, today was about being over them. We arrived bright and early at 8:15 for our taxi to the ‘airport’ for a scenic flight over the ocean to be told bad news – the plane’s broken, it developed a strange noise yesterday afternoon and had been grounded. Fortunately they managed to get us onto a flight with another airline in the afternoon.

To assuage our disappointment, we had a wholesome breakfast – fried jacks are a large savoury doughnut stuffed with any combination of eggs, beans, cheese, ham or chicken – plus the obligatory chilli sauce.

We walked around the streets for a while – they are colourful and lively. Stopped for a coffee then walked along the sea front as far as we could go, this is the quiet end of town, no bars, just waterfront hotels with their own jetties.

We returned to the hotel for a bit to cool off then back out for a juice and some shopping – replenishing our t-shirt stocks.

It’s soon time for our flights, the taxi to the airport is a 6 seat golf buggy, transport on the island is foot, bike or buggies. The plane is not much more than a 6 seat golf-buggy with wings. We are given silver class boarding passes – it’s like playing at airports, two minutes later the ground crew take the boarding passes off us. It’s the first time I’ve ever got in a plane and turned left but business class it isn’t, my knees don’t fit behind the pilot’s seat in front of me and my head is touching the ceiling. The windows are big however.

We’re soon airborne and climbing over the sea, the town is on my side, Florence has the reef and open ocean on hers. There is a good aerial view of the channel we snorkelled in yesterday. We turn out over the sea and head towards the Blue Hole 43 miles out to sea.

The Blue Hole is a 400 foot deep cave in the floor of an atoll, approximately 900 feet across. It was formed above sea level, like the cenotes we’ve previously seen in Yucatan and was subsequently submerged by rises in sea level.

From above, the hole is deep rich blue, contrasting with the turquoises of the surrounding shallow water. We circle a few times in each direction at different altitudes to give everyone a good look. It’s an amazing site, far better in reality than images can prepare you for, this was one of the things I was looking forward to the most on the trip and it wasn’t a disappointment. Too soon we’re done and move on to look at a ship wrecked on the edge of the atoll then back to the airport.

We’re back just in time to watch the sun set into the sea while pelicans fly around the small fishing harbour on the west side of the island.

Florence’s nerves needed calming after the flight. When we arrived in Belize we asked our driver what cocktails we should order on Caye Caulker, his immediate reply was Panty Rippers – so we do. These are fresh pineapple juice and coconut rum, in a waterfront bar watching the last of the light on the Caribbean through the Palm trees, the bar has swings instead of bar stools. It’s all as good as it sounds.

 

Swimming with Sharks

Started the day with a healthy breakfast of fruit and muesli, smoothie and coffee – preparation for an active day ahead. Today was all about what’s under the water – snorkelling on the reef.

This is the second longest living reef after the Great Barrier Reef. It runs 560 miles from Cancun to Honduras, including the  whole length of Belize. Charles Darwin called it the most remarkable site in the West Indies and it was also a favourite of Jacques Cousteau.

We spent the day with StressLess tours. Captain Keith runs everything, assisted by Dylan and Gazza. It’s a 30 minute speed boat ride out to the first site. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the sea is a rich turquoise blue. On the horizon, there is a white line of waves from the Caribbean breaking on the edge of the reef.

All the sites we visit are in the Hol Chan Marine reserve, this is an area set up to protect the marine life and environment. There are reserve staff on the water monitoring what is happening, our guides ensure that everything is done correctly; when a single piece of rubbish blows overboard they dive in to retrieve it.

The water is warm and shallow; no need for our Cornwall wetsuits here. Under the surface there are fish of every colour everywhere as well as corals of many shapes and sizes.

The second site is known as Shark and Ray alley – for good reason. When we anchor there are dark shades in the water below, these are Nurse sharks, harmless to us, they live in a diet of shrimps, shellfish and occasionally coral. Sting Rays glide along the bottom.

The third site is a channel through the reef which lets a strong current through, it’s about 15m deep in the middle. Different varieties of fish and coral live here.

The final site is a barge that sank in the sixties and has now been totally claimed by the reef, inhabited by fish and coral.

We return to the dock through the Split, a gap right through the island created by a large hurricane in 1961 that killed 100s and flattened Belize City. The gap was bridged by a causeway until another hurricane tore it away, it’s currently under repair.

We ended another fine day with a rum punch and a plate of pasta made by an Italian from Verona. His restaurant is closed on Thursdays and Fridays. When we asked him why, he told us he plays in a band on these nights and doesn’t trust anyone else to make the pasta and run the place.

Dollars and Pesos

Early night last night – 10 hours sleep – feeling very relaxed. Up at 7:00 to watch the sunrise over the Caribbean then an early taxi to the Mayan city of Tulum a few miles up the coast.

We’re not far back in the queue; a Coati, a small furry thing about the size of a cat entertains us while we wait.

Tulum is the only substantial Mayan settlement right on the coast. It was also known as Zama, which means Dawn, it was one of the first place in the country to see the sun. It had a wall with ramparts and watch towers to control the comings and goings, the elite lived inside the walls, the commoners outside.

We head straight for the beach to try and get the best views without too many people. The sun doesn’t want to play and it’s already filling up before the light is good.

There are no big pyramids here, it’s more a seaside town than a big city like Chichen Itza. It’s known that the people of Tulum traded cotton, honey, salt, weapons and jade with other cities up and down the coast by boat. As well as living on fish and game from the jungle, people had small gardens and grew maize, tomatoes, chills, squash, beans and fruit.

The first hour is quite peaceful but Playa del Carmen and Cancun are only an hour or two away and it soon fills up to uncomfortable levels.

The beach was closed first thing because the tide was very high but it opened a bit later and hundreds of people squeeze onto the narrow strip of sand, including Florence.

We returned to the hotel about 11:30 and have a late breakfast\early lunch of green juice, green salad and quesadillas.

Read and wrote diaries for a bit then wandeedr down to the next hotel for a jalapeno marguerita (Florence) and Mexican coffee (Andy). Florence was befriended by a black cat. Read and wrote a bit more, lazed on some sun-loungers until the sun dropped a bit then went for a swim in the sea. The water is warm, the waves are stong enough to body surf in, the sun is going down, it’s all quite lovely.

Strolled down the beach to an Italian restaurant, nice view of the sea as darkness comes. The pasta is all handmade, my wild mushroom sauce is very tasty too.

A nice lazy day, early start tomorrow – and a new country!

Why did the Mexican throw his wife out of the window? Tequila!

The hotel was noisy so we didn’t get great sleeps. Up at 7:00 to pack a bit then out to the same place as yesterday for breakfast, very nice again.

Wandered back to the hotel, finished packing then time for a final swim to cool down. We walked to the bus station, got there in time for the last throes of Arsenal’s defeat to City.

We took the bus to Tulum, about an hour south. On the way there was a short, very heavy rain storm, the first rain we’ve seen in Mexico. It lasted about two minutes.

The hotel is very nice, eco-lodge style, loungers on the beach. With the orientation meeting out of the way, we made our way to some sun-loungers and watched the waves for a bit.

We took a short walk outside the hotel; there are lots of interesting looking bars and restaurants. This part of Tulum, Paradiso beach, has a very pleasant, laid back feel to it, everything is small and local and friendly.

Quick swim in the sea to cool down before the highlight of the day – dinner at Hartwood. This restaurant was opened by a New York chef Eric Werner a few years ago and has been the driving force behind the opening of a number of high quality places – next year Noma are coming here for six weeks while their main restaurant is refurbished. Hartwood has a tricky reservation policy, you can email them and you might get lucky, otherwise you have to queue from 2:00pm to be at the front when they start taking bookings for the evening at 4:30. Fortunately we’re lucky with the email.

Hartwood is open air, fine apart from a short shower. It has a relaxed feel, all cooking is done in wood-fired ovens. We started with cocktails – Cilantron for me Habanero Marguerita for F. The food was wonderful – again – starters of Jicama salad and tomato salad; a Jicama is crunchy like an apple but more savoury, all the ingredients are sourced locally.

The main course was a stuffed roasted chilli with some roasted beetroot, sweet potato and plantain. Finally corn and cheese ice cream – far better than it sounds.

The waiter convinced us to finish with a tequila – very nice too.

The waiting staff are a good mix of Mexicans, Americans and even someone from Hull. Florence told the tequila joke to one of the Mexican guys – he liked it.

It’s just a hole in the ground

Early start this morning to get some breakfast before our 9:00 departure. We stopped in Acanceh, a small town only half an hour from Merida, to pick up some snacks for lunch, it’s very different to the city, the market has very little choice and everything looks a bit run down. There’s a Mayan pyramid next to the main square, not something every village can claim.

Today was all about Cenotes, underground sinkholes filled with water. There are over 2500 in the Yucatan peninsula. We visited two different ones. Both have in common that they almost invisible from above until you’re on top of them. Wooden steps lead down to the water 15-20m below ground. The water is deep blue and where the sun hits them the rays are visible a long way down. The water is cool to swim in but pleasant once you’ve been in it for a while. We’re given masks and snorkels to get a better look.

The first has a bit more sunshine getting in, the rays make beautiful patterns in the water. Surprisingly there are a few fish, a kind of small catfish. The second is deeper and widens out under ground to a space 150m across. There are a few platforms to jump from, one of the local guides impresses us all by jumping from the top – probably 20m down to the water. There are roots from trees hanging all the way from top to the water.

The second cenote has another surprise – on the bottom is a nativity scene – only in Mexico!

Both are very beautiful, it’s a wonderful experience to lie back in the water and look at the sun reflecting onto the roof of the cave or the sky through the hole at the top.

We stopped at a convenience store in Telchaquillo on the way back, they sell many types of soft drinks and cheesy crispy snacks – and not much else.

Back in Merida we have some more ice creams and walk round for an hour, I think we’ve seen it all.

From Milan to Yucatan…

We’re in Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan, rhythm sticks not much in evidence.

We arrived this morning on an overnight bus from Palenque, not the best night’s sleep.

We set out at 9:00 for walk around town to get oriented and, more importantly, breakfast.

The town has a similar feel to San Cristóbal but older, this is the first place on the American continent settled by the Conquistadors. As usual many low rise colonial buildings. The cathedral dominates the central square, it is large but not as cumbersome as some we’ve seen. It’s built on the site of an older temple and uses the stones from that building. The Conquistadors had to prove their god was stronger than the indigenous gods so their cathedrals had to be bigger than the existing temples and have an overwhelming presence. The churches are massive but have no grace in their architecture.

Breakfast was very good, banana, peanut and berry smoothie and molletes – toast with refried bean and cheese and hot sauce (Yucatan has the hottest hot sauces in all of Mexico).

The sun was warming up and it was quite humid as we walked around town. The city is built on a grid pattern, for a while the sun shines directly along the north-south streets, no shade anywhere.

We tried the Contemporary Art museum, in some rooms the best thing is the air-conditioning but one room has a set of pastels by Spanish Artist Javier de Villota which are light and graceful and depict figures in motion – but these figures are Chilean police violently oppressing any opposition to the military regime, a powerful combination.

The palace of government is home to a set of 27 murals by local artist Fernanco Castr Pachero, like those of Rivera in Mexico City they cover epic themes on an epic scale, but there are many small scale elements within them. One depicts the brutal execution of the leader of an indigenous uprising; one pair concentrates on the hands and feet of a single worker as a metaphor for all the local people oppressed by the colonial power. Another shows the Mayan belief that humans are created from corn, their staple crop.

Back to the hotel for a swim to cool down via an ice cream bar, chocolate and chilli and tequila and lemon flavours – yum. One museum is open late, the house of the former governors of the city. It’s a very nice building but decorated with dark wood and heavy colours, stuffed with European furniture and decorations that seem incongruous in this setting.

We started the evening with a couple of local craft beers at a Cuban bar, La Negrita – Cuba is only 80 miles from Cancun. The beer is very good, the bar is full and buzzing, a Cuban band plays in the garden. This bar wouldn’t have fitted in any town we’ve been to so far, Merida is a bit different.

Firecrackers and Church Bells

We were woken this morning by firecrackers and church bells, at 5:45. We slowly got round to getting up and showering and exploring breakfast possibilities, not much open so we had a couple of very nice pastries and not so very nice coffees.

We left the hotel at 9:00 for a boat trip along the Sumidero Canyon. San Cristobal de las Casas is high in the hills, as we drove down to the river we’re above the clouds in the valleys below. All along the road we passed pilgrims walking up to San Cristobal with their local virgins, some barefoot or just in socks.

It’s a lot hotter at 90m above sea level but we’re warned to keep our jackets on because the boats are fast and breezy. Life jackets on and we’re ready to go. The boats are fast but slow down whenever there’s an interesting site or wildlife.

The canyon is up to 1,000m high, the water up to 250m deep, the Grijalva River twists and turns, often feeling like we’re heading straight for a rock wall – fast. Wildlife is abundant, vultures and white herons, kingfishers and cormorants, an eagle and a pair of iguanas. In the trees above the river a monkey family feeds.

After 35km we reach the the end of the journey, the Chicoasén Dam. The dam was completed in 1980 and supplies hydro-electricity to Mexico, Guatamala and El Salvador.

On the way back Florence said we’re unlikely to see a crocodile and within seconds we slowed down to look at one, it’s about 15 feet long, absolutely still on the water’s edge.

The river has a problem with pollution from the upstream settlements and logging operations, 5,000 tons of rubbish is removed every year, it tends to build up in the canyon because of the shape of the river and the dam. To illustrate this the next crocodile we see is surrounded by plastic bottles and rubbish, a sad site.

We stopped at Chiapa de Corzo for an hour on the way back, not sure why, it doesnt have much to recommend it. It’s full of pilgrims making their way up to San Cristobal. We walked round the market and the church in 10 minutes – then what? Round the back of the church, we found an old building that looked interesting, we signed the guest book and went in. The old colonades and cloisters glowed in the sun. There was also an exhibition by a local artist, tempting to say what I think of it in the visitors book but I decide not to.

We returned to San Cristobal around 3pm and wandered the colourful streets for a while. We tried a tamale, mashed corn baked in a leaf, ours has cheese and vegetables too, it’s very tasty. We fortified ourselves with a strong coffee before climbing up to the Templo del Cerrito de San Cristobal. There’s a panoramic view of the town from the top.

We walked back to the pedestrian street where our hotel is for a glass of Mexican Malbec at the a very nice La Viña de Bacco wine bar. Inevitably, while we’re there another procession passes with a virgin at the front and a brass band. This one also has some enthusiatic dancers in what look like Mayan costumes. A little girl opposite us has her fingers in her ears to keep out the noise.

Our last stop is another tamale and some lentil soup, another procession passes while we eat, finishing the day as we began with Firecrakers and Church Bells.

Mmmmmmm

Today started with a brief walk into town followed by a hearty breakfast at La Ola, fruit salad, green juice and a tortilla with cheese and guacamole, and coffee obviously. Then on to the main business of the morning – a cooking class.

We started at a local market, the stalls have all the vegetables and fruit you’d expect and many more mysterious things we’ve never seen or tatsed before. Our teacher, Pilar likes to buy from the ladies who bring small amounts of things to sell rather than the established stalls, its fresher and it’s better to support them. Everything is organic because nobody uses any chemicals on anything. The market feels like the centre of the community, people are eating and drinking in groups and everyone seems to know everyone else. Near the market, there is a small place that does grinding for everyone. They have machines for wet or dry corn, cacao and a number of other ingredients. People bring in a bucket of corn, for example, and this is then mashed up and used in things like tamales – stuffed corn or banana leaves. We learn that the secret to cooking corn is to add calcium as it dissolves the husks and makes the corn smooth enough for tamales pastes and tortillas.

Pilar has a beautiful house with a beautiful black cat called Matilda. The house has a large open plan lounge, kitchen and dining area with a light well in the centre to keep it bright. She explained the heaps of ingredients, which have been laid out in baskets for each dish. The class had five students and we worked our way through chopping, peeling and cooking six dishes with Pilar explaining what we are doing and why along the way. It all comes together after an hour and a half and there’s just time for a glass of Mezcal and some appetisers before lunch. The food was very good, many of the dishes have stronger or lighter hints of chilli but it’s in the background along with many other flavours. There’s also a very nice Mexican red wine to go with it (cabernet grenache).

At 2:30pm, our guide came to pick us up for our next adventure – a visit to the Zapotec town of Monte Alban. This is an older pre-hispanic town built on top of the highest hills in the area from about 500BC. The site is a strategic position with views along all the possible approach routes. It’s almost deserted, with maybe 10 to 15 other people there. We started with the Pelota court, the best preserved we’ve seen. The rules of this ball game aren’t too well understood but it’s known that the two teams of three players represented all the realms of the underworld, the earth and the sky. Zapotecs were less cruel than the Aztecs; the winners were honoured rather than sacrificed.

Around 500AD the Zapotecs discovered that cooking corn with limestone changed its texture and made it more versatile, exactly the process we’d been told about in the market that morning. This was important for them because it meant they could make bread and other food that could be stored and this led to an increase in the population and the formation of further nearby cities.

One building on the south side has a number of stone reliefs of figures, the first assumption was that these were dancers so it was named Los Danzantes – also the name of the previous night’s restaurant. Subsequent research however has shown it to be very different, the figures all have mutilated genitals and are actually contorted in pain rather than dancing; this is now believed to be what was done to captured enemies and served as a warning to others.

From the highest point at the south of the city there are fantastic views of the rest of the site, the town of Oaxaca and all the surrounding valleys and mountains. Our guide, Montserrat was very good, she had an endless array of facts at her finger tips which brought the place to life and explained many subtleties of the layout. She is passionate about the site, and archeology in general.

All too soon we have to return to our hotel. We drove through some parts of the town we hadn’t seen yet, more beautiful churches, a local religous festival and the old railway station where the remaining wagons are slowly being converted into a number of little cinemas.

We hope to come back to Oaxaca, it’s a beautiful town with so much to see, do and eat!

There’s just time for a quick shower before taking the overnight bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas.